Cultures of Energy fellow Nathan Keibler reviews Liz Ward’s “Cryosphere”

Posted by on Jan 20, 2013
Cultures of Energy fellow Nathan Keibler reviews Liz Ward’s “Cryosphere”

Liz Ward’s Cryosphere exhibit took place at the Moody Gallery in Houston in October and November 2012. Keibler reviews the exhibition as an undergraduate fellow in the Cultures of Energy group.

Further images from the exhibtion can be viewed here:


Liz Ward, “Cryosphere”

To the unknowing gallery visitor, the term “cryosphere” might appear to be a kind of synthesis of human emotion and some layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. If one isn’t familiar with the term, he/she may be led to believe that Liz Ward is making an effort to tug at the heartstrings of those traversing her latest exhibition at Moody Gallery, Cryosphere. Coupled with the material effects of the watercolor pieces that visitors encounter, one can’t help but to think that there was some sort of calculated effort at sentimentality here. The drips of colored water can almost be thought of as tears pooling within the textures of each canvas.

However, Ward assures us that the term isn’t an indicator of what one should feel as he/she experiences her latest work. Rather, the term is scientific, stemming from the Greek cryos (cold, frost or ice) and sphaira (globe or ball). In the artist statement accompanying the exhibition, Ward writes: “The cryosphere is the area of the earth’s surface where water is in solid form, such as glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, sea ice and permafrost. It exists in a close relationship of climactic linkages and feedback loops to the hydrosphere, earth’s areas of liquid water. The works in this exhibition explore the fluctuating zone between hydrosphere and cryosphere, between water and ice.” The show contains sixteen watercolors, four watercolor studies, two lithographs, and three silverpoint drawings on tinted gesso. The size of each piece ranges from something as small as 12” x 10” to pieces as large as 66” x 32”. The works are organized by likeness of size, displayed in groupings of three to four. All serve as a message about the melting of the cryosphere.




Without a doubt, the two main drivers of the show are color and experimentation with the fluid qualities of Ward’s favorite medium, watercolor. These drivers have had a perpetual presence throughout the artist’s work. Born in Louisiana, Ward’s early pieces have definite regionalist undertones, focusing mostly on the many aquifers near the Gulf Coast.

Her interest in the seemingly “impersonal” forms of nature exists in a strikingly personal manner. Much as there is a repeated choice of medium evident in her oeuvre, there is a repeated subject choice. With her art, she constantly reminds us of the presence of water just beneath the visible surface of the Earth’s uppermost layer, tracing its seemingly invisible origins and making them visible for her audiences.

Despite her intensely refined focus in subject matter and medium, Liz Ward works with a broader motive. In her essay “Painting the Wasteland: The Environmental Critique in Contemporary Painting,” she writes, “The relative lack of engagement by visual culture, and painting in particular, with the urgent worldwide environmental crisis and global warming, is a question worthy of further examination.” She broadens her scope even more further into the essay, “Suffice it to say that the entire paradigm of the human relationship to nature has been overturned; wilderness is now understood to be a fragile remnant of its formerly terrifying self, in desperate need of human protection.” No longer is it man defending himself against nature, but nature in need of a formidable defense against man, and Ward is fully aware of this.

Ward goes on to mention that environmentalism is a factor largely missing from the discourse surrounding contemporary art. With a nod to Gore, she cites it as an “embarrassing fact” or an “inconvenient truth.” She recalls the period when “French theory” (linguistics, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, etc) entered the curriculum of many art schools, providing a framework and vocabulary for the discipline alone and further separating it from the realm of the “hard sciences.” Ward writes, “Perhaps art’s relative inability to address environmentalism is due in part to the estrangement of academic disciplines and their accompanying discourses from one another.” She becomes somewhat contemptuous of painters like Walton Ford who seem to have shrugged off any concern for the “green movement” in their work. She expresses an understanding for artists not wishing to limit the complexity of their work to a single issue, but cites any reluctance by such artists to align with environmentalism through their work as a prime example of the overarching attitude within the discipline. Ward questions, “Is it because this cause, unlike so many others espoused by the art world, is not perceived as fashionable? Is it because its historical ties to landscape painting are fraught with “art historical baggage”? Or is it a blind spot inherent in the discourse itself?” It’s clear that her personal obsessions with certain mediums and subject matter all function for a much larger cause.

In “Cryosphere,” the most striking pieces were undoubtedly those in the large-scale “Glacial Ghosts” series.


The six pieces were each scaled to the human, measuring 66” x 32”. A former student of Ward’s even likened them to a series of “vertical mirrors,” allowing the audience to more easily peer deep within the crevices of the melting glaciers before them. Though this isn’t Ward’s first attempt at creating works on a monumental scale (a previous series in the late 90s, “Conversing About Beautiful Mountains and Rivers,” existed of pieces measuring 96” x 12”), there seems to be some sort of calculated effort at hand in the sizing of the pieces, as they stand in stark contrast to the smaller measurements of earlier studies. Sizing them to the scale of the human seems to be an attempt at a more personal association with the seemingly “impersonal” natural condition she brings to light.

Scale is but one of the many techniques Ward employs in this exhibit. “Glacial Ghost (Fata Morgana),” presented on an entirely different wall from the other five works in the series, presents us with such a striking gradation of cerulean blue that it begins to make sense why it is hung separately.

























When one thinks of the waters surrounding floating glaciers, this is the color one turns to. It’s almost as if Ward presents us with a norm, or a (scientific) control, free of colors we would normally associate with pollution, as if she has presented us with what a melting glacier actually looks like (frankly, something beautiful).







However, once viewers turn to the right, they are presented with five works of the same size, of similar shape and texture, but with a glaring shift in coloration. Here, it’s as if Ward has presented us with what melting glaciers (a natural phenomenon that one normally wouldn’t associate with beautiful colors) should look like. She shifts the color from a pristine blue to a dampened evergreen (Glacial Ghost V), an almost putrid yellow (Blue Melt), a sewage-like green (Verdigris Glacier), an oily black (Black Glacier) and a deep red (Hot Glacier). Though it may be up for debate, I would argue that one would normally associate a phenomena stemming from pollution and increased CO2 emissions with these colors, rather than the blue on the adjacent wall. Through color variation, the range of association is no longer limited solely to nature’s response to pollution (the “beautiful” blue melting), but is opened to the causes of the response (the putrid yellows and greens, fiery reds, and oily grays). Here, color is assigned not according to the rules of nature, but to the expectations of the human.

Though not present in this particular show, Liz Ward is also known for the many silver-point drawings throughout her career:

Such drawings make use of a sharpened silver-rod and an “abrasive” surface for the rod to leave a line in. Her interest in this type of drawing began while she was studying various Old Master drawings. Already having mastered color play, Ward was fascinated by the way the precision and subtlety of the silver rod’s line could cut through a ground of generously blocked color fields. Such an act creates a piece in which viewers become lost while scrutinizing the delicate, almost invisible line of the silver rod. Ward prompts the viewer to put in some effort to discover her pieces, “guiding his/her optical experience so that one might learn to ‘feel with the eyes’ and, in so doing, be aware of the processes of vision as they occur.” Much in the same way she wants her viewers to become aware of the unseen bodies of water coursing beneath the surface of the Earth, Ward wishes for her audience to become more aware of the workings of human vision itself through the search for the silver point line. In another sense, vision would not be possible without water. The aqueous humor (layer of fluid between the iris and the cornea) nourishes the eye’s lens. In a meditation on seeing and not seeing, Ward wishes for her audience to realize the true gravity of the human’s dependence on water – that it provides for vision itself.

In the context of “Cryosphere,” it’s interesting how Ward’s emphasis on water seems to be amplified through the inclusion of the melting white solid that is giving way to the brilliantly colored liquids. It’s as if she has given us a zoomed in view of a crevice deep within a withering glacier. She furthers her interest in the qualities of water by rendering it with such clarity and completeness. It sits in stark contrast to the white nothingness of the masses of ice that sit on either side of each crevice. She presents us with an intriguing, almost backward condition. In the “Glacial Ghost” series, the gradual dissolving of form becomes a visual metaphor for the melting of glaciers due to global warming. What’s interesting is that the “form” being eaten away at is presented in a state of “nothing” to begin with. Here, dissolution vivifies the matter, substantiating the process rather than emphasizing any sense of loss at hand. The solid is an almost boring, white nothing, while the liquid runs in increasingly intense hues. As aforementioned with the cerulean versus putrid coloration before, Ward presents a negative condition – the melting of solid glaciers into liquid form – in a strikingly beautiful light. Surely, viewers are provoked into a state of contemplation, but the ugly remains unseen.

On a slightly different note, the shapes of the “Ghosts” seem to recall the formal obsessions of Georgia O’Keefe, an association that Ward denies in her essay “Painting the Wasteland.” She cites O’Keefe’s romanticism as obsolete in the context of the “depressing realities of the landscape today.” It’s as if an artist’s celebration of the beauties of his/her region is deemed inappropriate in the context of the climate crisis today. To celebrate your surrounding landscape is only to deny the fact that its slowly being wiped off the face of the Earth. It’s also interesting to note Ward’s transition from a regionalist focus to one larger in scale (as seen in her earlier pieces in the exhibitions “Crazy Weather” and “Rivers and Waves,” inspired by nearby bodies of water). When one stops to think, it’s almost funny to see a Texan painting in the context of a Texan climate a series on glacial melting, a phenomenon that is thousands of miles away and that she, most likely, hasn’t experienced firsthand. If romanticism isn’t appropriate, is this? Personally, I haven’t seen glacial melting myself, so, in light of what I have seen on television or the Internet, I’d say Ward’s representations are pretty convincing, but only through the filter in which I’ve experienced the phenomenon. It certainly begs the question, with the rise of the Internet (and an endless supply of Google Image sources), is regionalism in art dead? Or, rather, does the fact that you’re from the region that you’re depicting give any weight to your art in comparison to someone depicting through a filter such as Google Image? Also, what does it even mean to be a “regionalist” today? Ward depicts a condition that affects humanity as a collective. The melting of glaciers affects her just as much as those living near the glaciers. In a way, it gives rise to a sort of “removed” regionalist.

In a separate artist statement for an exhibition of Ward’s titled “Deep Time,” she mentions the 19th century American landscape painter Frederic Church risking “his life to paint oil sketches of a calving iceberg from a boat off the coast of Labrador for his monumental painting of 1861.” It’s fascinating to think back to the days when artists didn’t have Google Image at their disposal, when they had to venture out to the actual glaciers and face the elements to represent what they wished to. Church sits on a boat just feet away from the glaciers, while Ward (most likely) drew her sources from the comfort of a studio or home office. This practice of en plein air is merely an artistic exercise today, something done in schooling and probably never again. As Ward mentions, “landscape painting is obsolete” and has been for quite some time. It’s almost as if the search engine exists as the new “plein air” arena.

Ward’s use of scientific sources has pushed her from Gulf waters to Arctic waters. Through an interest in sampling other disciplines, she has effectively transitioned from a regionalist driven focus to one that couldn’t be farther from her home. Her efforts for a more interdisciplinary approach to her work have pushed her work toward the global.

Speaking for artists as a whole, she writes, “Our comprehension of nature, formerly dominated by religion, is now formed by science, which for me provides a fruitful source of imagery.” She cites art’s power as lying in advocacy, a realm she feels “science” could use some help with. Despite her initial contempt, she appears to remain hopeful for the two disciplines to eventually come together: “Many artists want to engage with the world and its most pressing problems in meaningful ways, and there is no reason why painting should be excluded from the conversation. If green really is the new black, as fashionistas now assert, then the art world can’t be far behind.”







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